The Don Shula Trophy will stay in Boca Raton as Florida Atlantic defeated Florida International 52-24 on Saturday night at Schnellenberger Field.
The win clinched a Conference USA Championship berth for FAU - their first - and also gives them the home field advantage against North Texas (8-3, 6-1 C-USA) for the contest to be held on December 2nd.
The Owls (8-3, 7-0) jumped out to a 14-0 lead while they amassed 200 yards in the first quarter, which was aided by a 71 yard touchdown scamper by Devin Singletary (164 YD, 2TD).
However things became somewhat flat offensively in the second, as the Panthers clawed back to within four points.
Jason Driskel threw just his fourth interception on the season to set FIU up with prime field position deep in Owl territory.
But he responded with an efficient drive to give FAU a 21-10 double digit lead at the break.
In a play action setting, Driskel (18-25, 239 YD, 4 TD) masterfully faked a run and jet sweep to find D'Anfernee McGriff wide open for the score.
"This game shouldn't even be close…we are beating ourselves right now", Head Coach Lane Kiffin said at the half.
The teams traded first possesion blows to start the second, with Driskel going long to Kalib Woods for 79 yards, and runing back Alex Gardner taking it in from 14 yards out for the Panthers (6-4, 4-3 C-USA).
Greg Joseph missed his second extra point in as many games for a 27-17 tally.
FAU's offense revved up the rush attack in response, going to the ground for six plays in a row before Driskel found Woods again from seven yards out and his second score as the Owls pushed their advantage to 17 points.
Greg Joseph, who had missed from 52 yards out previously, then put the ball through the uprights from 44 in his second try to stretch the margin.
Down 37-17, Florida International continued to battle, and made it a two score game once again early in the fourth quarter.
Rather than go for it on fourth down, the Owls sent a fake punt direct snap to Gregory Howell to keep their ensuing drive alive and were successful.
With FIU keying in on the run, Driskel looked to familiar target Woods for a 53 yards over two big catches that set up Singletary's 2nd score of the evening.
Driskel tapped the well again with Woods for the two point conversion, and an insurmountable 45-24 edge with just 6:13 to play.
The Owls went to the wildcat thereafter, cashing in for one more touchdown, as a deflated Panther defensive unit watched Howell cross the goal line to give them a 28 point victory which was twice the line prior to kick-off.
"Pleased how our players played at the end…it was good to see how we came out and played in the second half - seemed very motivated and seemed like they wanted to make a statement and not just be satisfied winning", Kiffin said.
Woods, who had just 155 yards entering the game, finished with 172 to lead all receivers. He went over 100 yards for the fifth time in his career.
FIU had allowed an average of just 388 yards on the year prior to tonight, but gave up 572 to the Owls in the loss.
FAU scored over 30 points for the ninth straight contest against the Panthers, a feat which they had never accomplished prior.
Azeez Al-Shaair had a team-best 14 tackles, while Smith had eight. The Owl defense held FIU to 85 rushing yards and 2.7 yards per carry.
"It’s an exciting time for our players, for our fans, for our alumni", said Kiffin. "We’ve been beaten down for a while, and we’ve talked for a few weeks now about, you gotta keep knocking people off."
Seeking to do that, Florida Atlantic will look to conclude the 2017 regular season with a perfect 8-0 mark in league play next Saturday when they travel to Charlotte (1-10, 1-6 C-USA) for a 2:00 PM kick-off.
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